‘Workable’: Workshop brings consensus for jail/courts expansion plan

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Karin Cooper, architect with U.P. Engineers & Architects, discusses a recent three-day workshop regarding the Houghton County Jail addition at Tuesday's Houghton County Board meeting.

HOUGHTON — Participants of a three-day workshop on the design of a proposed addition for the Houghton County Jail said Tuesday it resulted in significant progress.

Attendees included members of the County Board, Sheriff’s Department and U.P. Engineers & Architects, said UPEA architect Karin Cooper.

“I would say we almost all to a person came in being very skeptical about whether we could put an addition in the location that’s been presented to us, which is where the the existing parking deck is,” she said. “But by the end of the three days, I think we, all again to a person, agreed we’ve got something that’s workable.”

Planning also included Rod Miller, a national staffing and movement expert who has helped design more than 1,400 jails.

“Any questions we had, he could answer them right there,” said Commissioner Tim Palosaari, who represented the County Board along with Chairman Al Koskela and County Administrator Eric Forsberg. “We could jump from one thing to another. It made it fast-paced working through each area.”

The proposed 58-bed design enlarges the courthouse and jail at the current parking deck.

The two levels of cells would have a mix of double-occupancy and single-occupancy. There are also several options for holding cells.

“The intent is to be as flexible as possible with the distribution of inmates and those that are just under detention,” Cooper said.

The existing jail will be renovated to house inmates from the county’s work camp. That will have three individual dorm cells with varying populations that would hold about 30 inmates.

“That is also flexible, because we’ve partitioned it into three dorms, so you can classify the inmates in various categories,” Cooper said.

Inmates moving from the jail to the District Court will have an internal connection through which they move to the court, possibly using the existing elevator. Currently, inmates walk from the jail through the main entrance of the building, then walk upstairs to the District Court.

“It may necessitate having to close the lobby for the few minutes it takes to move that inmate,” Cooper said.

The 28-bed jail has been beset by constant overcrowding. As recently as January, Sheriff Brian McLean had to declare an emergency with the state because the jail had been overcrowded for seven days in a row.

McLean shared Cooper and board members’ optimism about the process.

“It just got clearer each day, and by the end of the third day, it was like, ‘Yeah, this could work,'” he said. “We need beds. We’re in a crisis for beds.”

TOMORROW: Staffing, providing services to the public and taking the next step in the process to renovate the Houghton County Jail.